It Starts With a Sketch

What drawings reveal about artistic genius

Robert Rauschenberg. White Paintings- 1951. 1965. Ink, lined paper and staples on cardboard. 8 x 14-1/3 inches. Gift of the Gilbert B. and Lila Silverman Instruction Drawing Collection, Detroit.

© 2019 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Robert Rauschenberg. White Paintings- 1951. 1965. Ink, lined paper and staples on cardboard. 8 x 14-1/3 inches. Gift of the Gilbert B. and Lila Silverman Instruction Drawing Collection, Detroit.
More than just plans for grander works, drawings offer a special view into the artist’s world, and a unique collecting opportunity.

More than just plans for grander works, drawings offer a special view into the artist’s world, and a unique collecting opportunity.

Courtesy of Uprise Art

Katrine Hildebrandt-Hussey, Shifting Center, 2019. Burnt lines in paper and maple support.

“Drawings possess an immediate and vigorous quality that makes them particularly suitable as documentary evidence.”

Collecting Prints and Drawings, by Andrea M. Galdy and Sylvia Heudecker

In late January of this year, New York’s Museum of Modern Art announced a notable bequest from Gilbert B. and Lila Silverman: a lot of 800 drawings by more than 300 different artists. More than 100 – 113, in fact – are works by artists new to the MoMA roster. These are no ordinary drawings, though, nor are they out of keeping with the Silvermans’ other donations. They contributed a major collection of Fluxus art and the archives of Avalanche magazine, which privileged the artist’s outlook over that of critics. These new drawings are instructional drawings. In short, they account for the how and why behind an exhibition’s installation (whether or not there was an exhibition, in the end). What eventual end the drawings will be put to is for now pure speculation, albeit speculation that offers rich possibilities. With additions like the composer John Cage’s original score for Sounds of Venice, and Yoko Ono’s Instructions for Paintings, there’s reason for optimism and impatience. And if Christophe Cherix, the Robert Lehman Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints, is any guide, that optimism is far from unfounded: “This collection raises fascinating questions for audiences and scholars alike,” he says, “regarding issues such as the primacy of idea over process in art making, the legacy of ultimately unrealized or inherently ephemeral artworks, and the role of drawing today as paper becomes an increasingly uncommon repository for artists’ thoughts.”

The acquisition announcement was another indication that the drawing is enjoying a moment, with an expanding spate of dedicated spaces in museums and art fairs. There are of course the old stand by’s like New York’s Drawing Center, founded by the curator Martha Beck in 1977. It has operated continuously since then, hosting more than 300 exhibitions, producing 150 catalogs, and “explor[ing] the medium of drawing as primary, dynamic, and relevant to contemporary culture, the future of art, and creative thought.” The Drawing Center at the Morgan Library exists “to deepen the understanding and appreciation of the role of drawing in the history of art.” They stage lectures, symposia, exhibitions, and master classes, as well as offering research fellowships in the name of fully utilizing the Center’s holdings. So, whether or not this is a golden age for the drawing, there’s surely great enthusiasm for the medium among collectors, curators, and artists alike.

The new MoMA holdings are also squarely in line with the drawing’s versatility. In their Foreword to Collecting Prints and Drawings, a volume exploring early modern collecting practices, the scholars Andrea M. Galdy and Sylvia Heudecker, write that “drawings possess an immediate and vigorous quality that makes them particularly suitable as documentary evidence.” Certainly, on an art historical level, a record of Robert Rauschenberg’s vision for his White series offers singular insights. Yet the drawing can seem like the art market’s middle child. It might lack the grandeur of a painting or original sculpture. It’s less easily accessible to collectors than a print, where even a relatively limited edition might run to a thousand and carry a modest price. And there’s at times a suggestion of the workmanlike about the drawing. Something preliminary, a staging ground ahead of the ascent. Nonetheless, consider a finely rendered architectural drawing completed ahead of construction, or a study undertaken before a painting. There are offerings in each of those veins so finely rendered as to deserve a place of honor in collections. To limit what qualifies as a masterful drawing is to remain blind to much of the medium’s appeal.

Merce Cunningham. Aeon
© 2019 Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham. Aeon (.d).1961/63. Ink and colored pencil on three sheets of notebook paper, mounted and matted, and typewriting on paper. 11-1/8 × 8-1/2" (28.2 × 21.6 cm). Gift of the Gilbert B. and Lila Silverman Instruction Drawing Collection Gift, Detroit.

Merce Cunningham. Aeon
© 2019 Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham. Aeon (.d).1961/63. Ink and colored pencil on three sheets of notebook paper, mounted and matted, and typewriting on paper. 11-1/8 × 8-1/2″ (28.2 × 21.6 cm). Gift of the Gilbert B. and Lila Silverman Instruction Drawing Collection Gift, Detroit.

Robert Rauschenberg
© 2019 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Robert Rauschenberg. Letter from Billy Klüver to Pontus Hulten regarding the fabrication of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings- 1951. 1965. Ink on paper. 13 x 8-1/2 inches. Gift of the Gilbert B. and Lila Silverman Instruction Drawing Collection, Detroit.

Donald Judd
© 2019 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Donald Judd. Instruction Drawing for Otterlo Show Wall Sculpture. 1976. Pencil on paper. 12-1/2 × 9-1/2″ (31.8 × 24.1 cm). Gift of the Gilbert B. and Lila Silverman Instruction Drawing Collection, Detroit.

Courtesy The Menil Collection, Houston, Photo by Richard Barnes

Menil Drawing Institute

Clearly, the Museum of Modern Art agrees. So does Houston’s Menil Collection, which has for years emphasized the drawing in their exhibitions. They founded the Menil Drawing Institute program in 2008. In 2018, the facility moved to formalize its interest, housing The Drawing Institute in its own facility. Collection Director Rebecca Rabinow has suggested the Institute has particular interest in works that “stretch the definitions of what drawing can be.” They mount exhibitions drawn from the nearly 2500 drawings that are part of the Menil Collection’s 17,000 item inventory. A sizable selection of drawings is accessible online, including works by artists as varied as Bill Traylor, René Magritte, and Louise Bourgeois. In addition to celebrating the museum’s holdings, it serves as a bit of quiet advocacy for the drawing’s vitality as a medium and a readily accessible resource for enthusiasts and scholars everywhere.

There’s a natural urge among collectors to own drawings, though, and no shortage of opportunities to do so, beyond the standard gallery offerings. The Draw Art Fair heralds itself as “the first fair in the UK dedicated to modern and contemporary drawing.” It runs from May 17-19 this year at London’s Saatchi Gallery, and boasts an international roster of exhibitors. Across the channel in Paris, Drawing Now Art Fair celebrated its 13th run in late March, playing host to over 70 galleries from around the world. Stateside, Art on Paper is a three-day art fair held annually at New York’s Pier 36. It marked its 50th anniversary in 2019. The fair has grown steadily each year, most recently showcasing work from 100 galleries, worldwide. Each year, too, there are notable drawings on hand. Think William Beckman’s charcoal drawings from the 2018 fair, or Katrine Hildebrandt-Hussey, a highlight of the 2019 edition. Hildebrandt-Hussey’s work stands out for its inventive technique. She “has explored various methods of drawing and mark-making with fire on paper. These volatile processes-both controlled and precarious-mandate patience and methodical repetition, approaching ideas of ritual.” Her technique calls to mind the Drawing Center at the Morgan’s recent show of contemporary drawings. The title? “By Any Means.” The show’s curators write that, “artists from the 1950s to the present have pushed beyond the boundaries of traditional draftsmanship through their use of chance, unconventional materials, and new technologies.” The show ran simultaneously with “Invention and Design: Early Italian Drawings at the Morgan,” a pairing which gives a flavor not only of the Morgan’s holdings, but the astonishing variety the medium offers collectors.

Times change, but there’s always at least a core group of collectors and curators with a taste for the drawing. Though they’re likely apocryphal, the various accounts of Picasso trading a sketch for drinks or dinner cast the drawing as a precious object. And, of course, it needn’t be a work from the hand of a master, or one as rare and important as Raphael’s Head of a Young Apostle or Head of a Muse (price: upwards of $40 million apiece) to prove irresistible. In fact, it may not even need to be a drawing in the traditional sense anymore. That kind of openness to the medium’s possibilities, coupled with the long-established pleasures the traditional drawing offers, will keep it vital for a long time to come.

About the Author

John McIntyre

John McIntyre is a writer living in New Jersey. He writes about literature and art at Good Reading Copy.

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